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Jason Lindner: Beyond the Solo

Franz A. Matzner By

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Maybe now it’s about the collective approach. Maybe it's about other things now...and it’s not about taking a solo. —Jason Lindner
Jason Linder has been at the center of modern jazz's evolution for nearly two decades. His distinctive and flexible piano and synthesizer sound have placed him in a bewildering array of musical contexts and whether it's accompanying Anat Cohen, collaborating with Dafnis Prieto, or challenging the very edges of contemporary jazz—edges he has helped carve—Lindner consistently presents incisive musical forays that manipulate rhythm and sonic texture as much as they do melody and harmony.

Equally articulate away from the piano, Lindner's position at the cross roads of creative jazz lends him a unique perspective and provocative insight into the music's recent history and its future trajectory, all of which is encapsulated on the Now Vs. Now release Earth Analog (Now Vs. Now Records, 2013), discussed below.

Early Years

All About Jazz: You grew up in Brooklyn and started playing piano at age two. How did you get such an early start?

Jason Lindner: My dad's a pianist and a vocalist so it was just a case of imitating him and having the genes for musical talent or whatever it is that allows you to play by ear before you have formal lessons.

AAJ: Is your father also a jazz musician?

JL: He plays different types of music. Jazz, theater music, classical music, different things.

AAJ: Is that also at least somewhat the origin of your eclectic style as well?

JL: It's the origin of my learning jazz because he had a large jazz record collection.

AAJ: You play a large diversity of styles now, did that start early or develop later?

JL: It did not start early. It definitely developed later.

AAJ: What is your earliest musical memory?

JL: Playing happy birthday. No, actually the Star Wars theme! That was my first two handed piece.

AAJ: Considering your early start and background, did you ever ponder a different career path?

JL: I didn't explore any career path. I just wanted to be a good musician. I didn't even explore the career path of a musician. (laughs)

AAJ: Let's go with that. How did you do that? What did it mean to pursue being a good musician.

JL: I think I realized what it took when I went to the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art. I could compare myself with musicians who were really out there and doing it. There were some older musicians who were out there playing gigs... We looked up to them... During high school we got a chance to really play... We got a chance to bring in compositions and experiment, try arrangements. That was a breeding ground for what came later. It was definitely a college level situation in high school.

AAJ: LaGuardia has such a great reputation. It sounds like that was a big turning point for you.

JL:: Absolutely. Before that I was never around other musicians who were peers. My dad would bring me to rehearsals or to gigs and I took piano lessons, but I was pretty much the only one other than another friend before high school who was actually good at playing an instrument. It was hard to see where I stood.

Smalls: Window to the '90s

AAJ: You've noted another turning point was playing at Smalls.

JL: When Smalls came around there were already young musicians like myself on the scene who were into bebop and hard bop and those types of styles. Bass players who had to play gut strings with high action. It was a very different time than now. That early '90s time in New York when Chris Potter arrived, Brad Mehldau, all these people who became such amazing musicians were just cutting their teeth at that time.

I knew all them. There were some jazz [venues] before Smalls where we all met—like this little bar in Alphabet City, the ST Bar. The Village Gate was a really big place for people to meet because they had a jam session.

When Smalls came around, the Village Gate had just closed or was on its way out, and Smalls became the place where all the musicians would go every night. And it still kind of is. It was the spot where you could go all night. Play. Network. Learn. Practice. And I ended up playing there for about a year, as a leader and a few gigs as a sideman.

Then in its second year I started a big band which was an ongoing residency on Mondays.

AAJ: So that was a creative and career launching pad.

JL: That put my name in the paper every week. I think I became sort of a name. On the local scene anyway. The band probably didn't sound all that great the first couple years, honestly. I was learning how to do it. I was learning about chemistry between players, what it took to put a large ensemble together. And also making good arrangements. Into the second and third year it really started to form a sound. And Mitch Borden, the creator and founder of Smalls, was amazing about sticking with us.

AAJ: Is it during this period that your eclectic approach began to develop?

JL: It developed in two ways. Maybe three. Before I created the big band I was doing some gigs playing Afro-Cuban music. I had a steady gig three days a week at Victor's Café—was it called Victor's Café? Victor's something. It was a Cuban restaurant at 52nd street. I don't know if it is still there. But I played with William Ash, who was playing bass then...he got this gig and asked me to play.

And I didn't know anything about Afro-Cuban music. Yet all of a sudden we had a steady gig at a Cuban restaurant. So we learned really fast. I found that I really liked playing that and explored it in depth in the coming years.

Second, pianistically, salsa piano relates to early piano, meaning ragtime and such, because that is when classical music and rhythms that were more African in nature were coming together all over North and South America during the late 19th and 20th century. That's the roots of jazz, but also the roots of salsa piano. For example, the early jazz musicians, like Jelly Roll Morton, referenced the Spanish tinge, right?

I started to realize all these connections. Going back to the scene in New York at that time, people were very focused on one era of the music. But I started to realize where everything was coming from. There was a lot of diverse history and universal linkages. Linkages? (laughs).

AAJ: I think I know what you mean. That period is certainly defined by a jazz revival, which was important, but it was pushing a certain type of jazz. At the same time, I always think of the '90s as an explosive period for music in a broader sense. There was a revisiting and redefining of styles happening. Grunge, the electronica scenes were coming to the fore. Did those developments also have an influence?

JL: That's a good question. I wasn't really into other musical scenes then. I wish that I was because that probably would have guided my career path in a different way, or at an earlier time, but I was kind of slow at opening and discovering that.

AAJ: How did the growing influence of electronic music start then?

JL: At one point I really started exploring hip-hop and I wanted to make my own beats. So I got a keyboard work station—a Roland XP 80 I think it was. My first keyboard workstation. It was before I had a computer. And I started to make beats on it, in a hip-hop style, for lack of a better term. I wasn't using samples, or vinyl, but it served kind of like a drum machine. I made some cassettes with beats and started collaborating with some rappers that I knew. At the same time, I composed music for the big band and other ensembles that had to do with this new format that I was exploring.

NOW VS. NOW

AAJ: What was the impetus for Now Vs. Now?

JL: Our first gigs were in 2006 in Brooklyn. That band was a quintet with Panagiotis Andreou, me and Mark Guiliana, but it also had Baba the MC/beatboxer/rapper. And Avishai [Cohen] the trumpet player. We played a few gigs in New York and developed a sound.

AAJ: Did it come explicitly from a desire to explore the intersections with more electronic music or did that happen later?

JL: It was all just a progression. I was living in Astoria, we had a gig at Amnesia, and then all the gigs I would do that weren't the big band I was going for that type of sound.

I wasn't playing jazz quartet gigs anymore. I was playing in a place where we could really experiment sonically, using electric bass, the drummer playing more groove-oriented beats and less straight ahead swing. I wanted to touch on what was going on in music. I wanted to appeal to ordinary people and not just a jazz audience. Also my musical taste involved funk, and hip-hop, and pop, and I wanted to be part of the current world. I was growing up. I didn't want to pretend I was in another era.

AAJ: There did seem to be a shift happening at that time. With a group of younger musicians recognizing that jazz has always been defined in part by absorbing the contemporary music around it and that it has never been static.

JL: There weren't many doing it then. A lot of people are doing it now.

AAJ: But you were at the forefront of what we are seeing now. How conscious was it at the time? You said earlier that you'd been exploring the early influences that shaped jazz and then began exploring the new influences. Was that just a natural progression or a deliberate effort to reopen up jazz?

JL: I wasn't really trying to open up jazz. I was doing it for myself, for my own needs and desire to be a certain type of musician. I was figuring out what kind of musician I wanted to be.

One thing that helped was the Small's residency. I was able to learn a wide variety of jazz styles and was forced to deal with different devices in that I would have to accompany ten different instrumentalists who all had different musical backgrounds. Every horn player has different needs to feel comfortable to just solo. There were a lot of conversations about that in the band. That helped me develop a wider pallet.

The other thing is that we really connected with the audience every week. At that time there were a lot of people coming to see us. Lines went around the block to see the big band. Everyone in the band got a sense of what those people connected to. I would say it was musical honesty. They were all part of the moment regardless of what was happening. If Baba was sitting in or we were playing a ballad, it was just musical honesty they were connecting with.

A lot of big bands are more revivalists, but we were sharing a moment in time. Because a lot of those people coming to Smalls weren't jazz fans. They just wanted to hang out in a cool Bohemian place, sit on some couches, make out with a chick, and get drunk and high. And have some good music.

Earth Analog

AAJ: Turning to the most recent release, Earth Analog you've hinted at some of the elements that formed it.

JL: One important thing to mention is that I was playing with MeShell NdegeOcello and really explored synthesizers with her band during the four year period [leading up to the first album Now Vs. Now (Anzic Records, 2009]. She is a really amazing artist and a lot of jazz artists have come through her band, like Robert Glasper.

We developed a close musical relationship and she offered to produce our first album. She helped us attain song forms and a studio sound and a method of mixing the live playing in the studio with some editing and overdubs in post production. It had the energy of live music and the ingenuity and possibilities of the studio which occurs more on pop and rock records. She even came up with the title for the album.

Four years later, a lot of the techniques I used on Earth Analog I had learned from her. Mixing the live, the post production, and the editing process. I learned invaluable things from her which helped me produce my own records.

AAJ: So Earth Analog reflects the progression we've been talking about from your first explorations of the early influences of jazz to your experiences at Smalls, to working with Ndegeocello. Are there other elements that fueled the record we haven't covered yet?

JL: I've become more of an electronica fan since the first album. Between that time period and leading up to Earth Analog my compositions have become more electronica influenced.

AAJ: What kinds of electronica in particular?

JL: Some of my first influences are Squarepusher. Do you know him? And artists that some of my friends like Mark [Guiliana] hipped me to: Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada. Different things, different influences.

Another influence on Earth Analog was the producer of Radiohead Nigel Godrich's band Ultraista where he plays a lot of synthesizers. The editing and production are just stellar. Real instruments and real things being played and [then] his amazing techniques in the studio to create unique sounds you've never heard before.

AAJ: Pulling all these threads together, could you walk us through how you put a composition together from genesis to production?

JL: Hmm. Good question. Most of the compositions on both albums—but more Earth Analog—started on my laptop in the logic software as mini sketches of songs that I could either develop electronically on the computer or bring to a live situation.

I used that software as a writing tool so I can experiment with what the different instruments are doing, or even forms. As many musicians do now. Then bringing it to Mark and Panagiotis, having a rehearsal and the time you devote to it bringing it to the stage. It develops the way it needs to once the guys have put input into it. It becomes more collaborative based on my own ideas.

Then into the studio. A lot of the music on Earth Analog was already pretty well formed because we'd been playing it for one to two years. And the ones that weren't took a lot of editing to figure out where the forms could go. For example, "Ancient Alien" wasn't fully formed and I had to figure that out in the studio.

AAJ: Are there individual stories or inspirational moments associated with the titles? Some people just slap a title on at the end, for others it's more tied together.

JL: They all have stories behind them. But I admit, I did change a lot of the titles. Once I figured out what the album title was going to be, I wanted to string together the songs in a cohesive way. I didn't obsess about it. "Ancient Alien" was actually called "The Struggle" first. When I composed it I was in a period of frustration trying to get the band off the ground. And I wrote that song and it had that energy, the snare drum hitting so hard, pounding into your brain. But I ended up calling it "Ancient Alien" because in the studio we came up with the outro where Panagiotis sounds like, well, an alien. It's based on a rhythm that he showed me from Greece.

AAJ: It's not because you really love the show Ancient Aliens?

JL: (Laughs) No, no. It has nothing to do with that show. That's funny.

AAJ: Another track that stands out is "Fearless One."

JL: I think it's a bold, somewhat aggressive song. I called it "Fearless One" as a nod to a friend of mine who is fearless. When I play the song, I think of him.

AAJ: Do you often have a specific reference like that when you are writing the song or does it come after?

JL: There is always something. A specific moment, an activity, an emotion, or a time period. It is good to recognize those things for the development of the song. Sometimes you can get a title out of it, sometimes not. Like "Drift," the last song on the album. That was called "Detective" initially. It related to that point when a relationship is going bad, but no one is verbalizing so you have to play detective to pick up cues. What did they mean by that? What did they mean by this? I ended up calling it "Drift" because it feels like drifting apart. The tide is pulling you apart and you can't do anything about it. You have to surrender to the reality.

Electronic Spiritualism

AAJ: Taking a step back again to the album as a whole, one interesting element to me is how it approaches the electronica influences. I think there is a lot of bias from folks who don't spend a lot of time with electronica that it doesn't reflect spiritual or emotional themes the way non-electronic music does. There's a lot of electronica that actually does explore that space, and to my ear your album—and what a lot of other jazz musicians who deal with electronica—are doing is elevating that aspect of elecrtronica. I noted that especially on "Amnesia" from the previous album, and "Inteligentleman" and "Stillness" on Earth Analog. Is that a conscious experiment?

JL: Interesting. It's not conscious. I was talking to Jo Jo Mayer—the drummer who pioneered playing drum and bass program style on live drums—he's been a big influence on a lot of drummers in the '90's. I just did a tour with him and I was talking to him a lot about this. He doesn't call his music electronica. He calls it jazz. The band is improvising, they are integrating, and it's the progression of jazz.

In the same way, Earth Analog is not an electronic record. To a purist jazz musician, it might seem that way, but to an electronica person it's a jazz record. We have to keep that in mind. It's influenced by electronica. Of course, electronica albums are often done on a computer by one person. They are engineered and they are not usually played live.

AAJ: I certainly didn't mean to imply Earth Analog is an electronica album, more the reverse. That its use of those elements is drawing out these emotional and spiritual spaces in a new and different way. It's something I've noted on other jazz albums that reference or incorporate electronica influences and to me it's quite powerful.

JL: I know when I play synthesizers live I improvise the sonic texture. I think improvisation is the key. When you are working with improvisation and interaction that is where creation and spirituality lie. Spirituality is creation. So when Squarepusher is making his track in his bedroom for however many weeks or months his creative process is stretched over that period of time. It's like a writer composing a novel or a composer going into the forest. For a jazz musician the spirituality manifests in the moment. Perhaps that's the difference.

It's an element that's coming back into the music in a big way right now. A lot jazz of musicians have electric projects.

AAJ: It's a fascinating development. There are folks for whom it's a progression, building on innovators like yourself. For some its one of many approaches they take or a separate project. For others an integral part of their core sound. And there are younger musicians who it's all they do.

JL: The other element of spirituality that is created within electronica musical style is repetition. When you repeat something it takes you into a trance like state, a meditation, and you can experience spirituality through that.

AAJ: Right. Mantra is a critical part of many mystical branches of religion. And there's a lot of electronica that deliberately draws in the rhythms and even some of the pitches and structures from those traditions. It's pretty interesting.

JL: At the same time that there is electronic music that is flat, unemotional, inhuman and robotic, there's also spirituality that comes from the trance, the mantra. So it's a very interesting platform for creation. I like exploring that in a live setting. It's just beginning to be explored in a live context. Without people wanting to hear a solo, just accepting that this is the trance we are going to enter.

I feel one thing that separates my music is that I am not necessarily trying to play jazz. The Earth Analog record can be seen as a jazz record and maybe it is. I'm not really sure it is. I didn't make the decision and it doesn't effect the music what I call it.

A lot of jazz is concerned with the solo and the blowing part and the head melody is just an excuse to blow or sets the stage for the blowing to come. With this album I feel like we are more about the composition, the form, the mantra if its it's a repetitive figure, and more about the experience and journey of going through that without feeling tied down to the solo, that very jazz mentality.

I feel I have gone beyond that. Even in live situations sometimes I don't see the point in soloing in certain contexts. I feel much more comfortable creating parts that connect with other parts and developing that as my creative, improvisatory contribution to the moment rather than trying to play some scales and arpeggios. That takes it out of the jazz realm a little bit, if nothing else does.

AAJ: There is more focus on the total sound and the total impression of the integrated pieces as opposed to the solo being the goal.

JL: Check this out though. Go hear the Wayne Shorter group. Wayne Shorter in my opinion is one of the elders who never sold out and always remained completely pure and always grew and got deeper with age. He's said many times that soloing is selfish. And when you go hear his group it's more about the collective experience. So he's connecting to that more as well as a jazz musician. Which is interesting.

Perhaps it's more a product of the time we are living in. Maybe in the '40s and '50s it was more about individual expression. What can you do? What can you prove? What are people capable of? The world has changed so much since then. Maybe now it's about the collective approach. Maybe it's about other things now. Maybe it's not about taking a solo.

Photo Credit: John Kelman

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NowVsNow

Anzic Records
2010

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Now Vs. Now

Now Vs. Now

Anzic Records
2010

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Live at the Jazz Gallery

Live at the Jazz...

Anzic Records
2008

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Live At The Jazz Gallery

Live At The Jazz...

Anzic Records
2007

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Ab Aeterno

Ab Aeterno

Fresh Sound New Talent
2006

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Live/UK

Live/UK

Sunnyside Records
2005

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